Bollywood films are all about upper-caste Hindu heroes

Heroes everywhere.
Heroes everywhere.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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A recent Bollywood flick, Dil Dhadakne Do, deals with the life of super-rich Punjabi Indians and their first-world problems.

High on picturesque offshore beauty, this Zoya Akhtar-directed movie was described by critics as ”shallow” and so far removed from India’s third-world reality that it is “difficult to give a damn about the people in the film.”

But, dismissing all such reviews, the filmmaker in a recent interview said that “the Indian audience doesn’t want to watch poor people.”

Whether that’s true or not is hard to say, but India’s popular film industry definitely does not celebrate diversity—and not just in terms of class, but also caste, religion and gender.

A recent analysis of lead characters of more than 250 films released in 2013 and 2014 by The Hindu newspaper revealed that only six lead characters belonged to a backward caste. The Indian national daily collected information available publicly on characters as well as the storyline of each of these films for its report.

According to Box Office India, an online film database, 184 films were released in 2013 and another 201 films in 2014. So, the Hindu’s analysis covers about 65% of the combined Bollywood films released in two years.

In 2014, the films that dwelled upon caste were Manjunath, a real-life account of an Indian Oil employee who was murdered for speaking out against a corrupt oil dealer; Highway, which showcased a distraught criminal from the Gujjar community; and the biopic on India’s pugilist Mary Kom whose lead character was a member of the Kom tribal community from Manipur.

In 2013, too, Bollywood had a total of three characters from backward castes. The films were Bandook, the story of a lower caste man’s rise to political power, Kangana Ranaut’s Revolver Rani, and Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela.

Looking beyond Hindus

The most common character in Hindi films is also a Hindu, according to the Hindu report. Only very few roles are written keeping in mind a Christian, Muslim or Sikh.

In 2014, only two films had lead characters who were Christian, three had Sikhs and nine had Muslims (including the critically-acclaimed Indian adaptation of Hamlet, Haider). Meanwhile, as many as 66 lead characters were upper caste Hindus, while the rest were Hindus whose caste was not mentioned or was unknown.

In India, according to the religion census of 2011, Hindus comprise 78% of the total population, followed by Muslims at 14.2%. Sikhs and Christians are about 2% of the population.

Evergreen sexism

Apart from this low representation of caste, class and religion, there’s another category where Bollywood lags behind: Gender.

For decades now, male stars get screen time and lengthy monologues, while women are cast for item numbers in skimpy clothes.

In a gender test of last year’s blockbuster films, nine out of ten movies failed by a long shot. Only one movie passed what is known as the Bechdel test—that a film casts at least two women, incorporates a scene or two where they interact with each other, and they talk about something besides a man.

However, in the recent years, some filmmakers have invested in strong female characters, and it’s a formula that has worked. In fact, the first—and so far, the only—film to make Rs100 crore ($16 million) at the box office in India in 2015 was led by Kangana Ranaut, a female star.